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My Theology series: by Guy Consolmagno, Ann Loades, Rachel Mann, and Keith Ward

by
25 February 2022

John Saxbee reviews further confessions of personal theology

A CHARACTER in George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street may speak for many when she admits: “I like books, but I wish people were more content for a while with those we already have.” Well, not content with the first four contributions to DLT’s innovative My Theology series, here are four more to add to those reviewed previously (Books, 17/24 December 2021).

Guy Consolmagno SJ is a highly qualified astrophysicist and Director of the Vatican Observatory. His search for scientifically verifiable truths at the farthest discernible reaches of the universe he sees as on all fours with the search for God. We must learn to see rather than just look, in relation to both science and religion, and this can be cultivated only within a community of minds engaged in a common quest. We must be taught by such a community of fellow seekers, living and departed, to see beyond what we expect to see.

Imagination is key to finding God in the universe, and the language that we must use is inevitably that of poetry.

This simple but never simplistic account of a life lived at the cutting edge of both astronomy and theology unites our senses, reason, and imagination in a way that is as infectious as it is effective.

For a more chronologically sequenced theological autobiography, we come to Ann Loades, Emerita Professor of Divinity at Durham University. Beginning with her experience of early education in nursery school, she traces her intellectual, theological, and professional development with repeated references to things happening by accident rather than design — the serendipity of life’s encounters.

From the mid-1970s, her 30 years at Durham University coincided with dramatic developments relating to liberation movements, the environment, feminism, medical ethics, and education, so nourishing her commitment to contextual theology. Many invitations to lecture or write on such topics seemed to come “out of the blue”, but it is clear that her own experience as a woman in male-dominated academic and theological environments (she learned to “grow a thicker skin”), together with an “unsystematic” range of interests, played a part in securing her international reputation as a go-to contributor across such a wide range of topical concerns.

Her early work on theodicy probably underpins her commitment to social justice and how theology does or does not provide progressive interpretative tools to effect positive change. If so, perhaps the trajectory of her career as one of the most influential Anglican theologians may not be so serendipitous after all.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves invited into Rachel Mann’s haunted and haunting world of “spectral theology”, where “God invites us to live in a rich three-dimensional mystery which subverts the depressing flat-earth of modern life.” In our disenchanted so-called secular age, the ghosts of God continue to disrupt our attempts to “stage manage him, her or they” — and continue to haunt us.

Mann is an Anglican priest, poet, author, and broadcaster, who, as a trans woman with complex Crohn’s, acknowledges that her background “is a little messier than that of some theologians”.

Here is a perspective on Christianity which refuses to be constrained by sexist, ablist, and hetero-normative conventions, while yet affirming an orthodox Trinitarian faith centred on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The first spectre of God which she invokes is, unsurprisingly, given her personal circumstances, the spectre of Body. Christianity has “too readily praised souls and minds, as if they were separate from bodies”. The task of a serious theologian, she writes, is to exorcise such fetishisation of the “well body”, as, in Jesus Christ, “God’s solidarity is with real bodies, in their precarity and limitation.”

It is Love that invites us, with all our bodily fragility, into relationship with God, and relationships with others which transcend vapid sentimentality and so reflect the compassion — the “suffering-with” — of Christ in his suffering and death. This chapter provides a trenchant challenge to modernity, in which chronic individuation threatens to subvert the spectre of Love, which, even yet, is all around.

The Passion gives way to resurrection in a final chapter on the spectre of Time, God’s time, when “to confront a world coming to an end with the gift of God who is ‘World without end’ might yet be a moment when poetics transforms politics”.

The contrast between the contributions of Mann and Keith Ward gloriously illustrates the breadth of Anglican theological expression. The religious poet and the former Regius Professor share a commitment to liberal orthodoxy, prioritising experience and some sense of idealism, but their articulation could hardly be more different.

Ward’s “personal idealism” is predicated on the premise that “everything that exists is consciousness or mind” and cannot be reduced to materialist definitions. Conscious experience is the fundamental reality for human beings, and it is a divine mind that thinks and actualises the objective world to which scientific inquiry addresses itself.

While acknowledging that various cultural contexts will fashion a variety of theological and philosophical articulations of the divine mind, Ward embraces Christianity on the basis of his own experience of Jesus. Chapters on The Existence of God, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Revelation, and Eschatology put flesh on the bones of his philosophical idealism — and provide a concise summary of his extensive theological publications.

As ever, his style is clear and accessible, as he unfolds a faith that is generous in its embrace of religious diversity, positive in its explication of central Christian teachings, but critical of any religious attitudes or actions that are contrary to the intrinsic goodness of beauty, charity, and compassion.

Not content with those that we already have, we await with interest the next quartet in this intriguing series.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

My Theology: Finding God in the Universe
Guy Consolmagno
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657- 54-3)
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

 

My Theology: The Serendipity of Life’s Encounters
Ann Loades
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-56-7)
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

 

My Theology: Spectres of God
Rachel Mann
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-52-9)
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

 

My Theology: Personal Idealism
Keith Ward
DLT £8.99
(978-1-913657-58-1)
Church Times Bookshop £7.19

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